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I am in Singapore, dining in Ah Hoi’s Kitchen, accessible from Traders Hotel, where I am staying to break my journey from Indonesia to Johannesburg.
I decide to entrust this decision to Lam Loon Tuck, the polite Chinese sous-chef, who tells me that Soon Hock (Marbled Goby) is his most tasty fish swimming in the tanks that day. The Chinese custom is to order various dishes and to share them, and my companions - Tina Sim and Wai Ling Wong - select the rest of our meal.
It is a typical hot and humid evening, so the outside fans bring a welcome cool breeze as we dine alfresco, with a view of Traders’ swimming pool edged by lush tropical plants.
As I sip fresh limejuice, a green mango salad with crispy fried fish skin is served. My friends graciously dish out portions for each of us. Wielding my chopsticks, I tuck in to the pretty salad. The taste is so delicious, making me wonder why we don’t eat green mangos in South Africa. Tina and Wai Ling generously try to ply me with more salad, but I refuse their attempts, knowing that they have ordered several treats for me.
The Soon Hock arrives, steamed, not fried, cooked this way to show off its delicate flavour. I doubt that I have ever consumed such fresh, soft fish, with such subtle but sublime flavours. I am told that the best part of a fish is the cheeks and, being privileged to receive a tiny portion, am happy to confirm this to be true.
The smiling waiter presents honey-glazed ginger chicken, as well as a dish of steaming Sambal kangkong (Water convolvulus fried in a chili and shrimp paste mix).
We chat animatedly about life in Singapore, which I hear from them is highly organized and efficient. As there are no natural resources on the island, the robust economy is driven by the hard work and long hours of a service-oriented community of Singaporeans of origin Chinese, Malay, Indian and a few minority groups, who amicably co-exist.
I have noticed this excellent service myself in Traders Hotel, where I was warmly received and whisked to my suite, with a lavish bowl of Asian fruits and a box of chocolates awaiting my pleasure. To my surprised delight, staff members remember my name and I am greeted personally each time I return to the hotel after my explorations in the city.
A signature Singapore favourite of Sri Lankan crab, in a light chili sauce, appears on our table. Again my friends honour me with the best part - the meaty pincers. We are given an apron and a finger bowl, as extracting the sweet flesh is a messy, but rewarding, business. Only piles of carapace remain after we have relished this treat, using Deep fried Mantou, which is hot fried bread, to mop up vestiges of the superb sauce.
When I had taken a city tour earlier in the day, I had been amused to see a long list of rules displayed in the bus.
Singapore is a city that is strictly governed, with severe consequences for disobeying the vast array of legislation. One of the rules is NO DURIAN!
My friends inform me that this very expensive, highly coveted fruit has an horrendous stench. It is exudes such a nauseating, powerful odour, that it is apparently forbidden in public places, like airports. When I say to Tina and Wai Ling that I would love to taste durian the chef is called and he responds with a smile.
My bravado weakens as I inhale the pungent fumes of a dessert prepared for me with the notorious Durian and cream. It is exceptionally good on the palate: a layered taste which is sweet and soft with a heavenly texture. My companions laugh at my sensual response and tell me that I will also enjoy durian-flavoured ice cream, sold in most ice cream stalls in malls and shops and in exclusive kopitiam (local coffee shops). No wonder travelers want to slip durian into their suitcases to smuggle home. Lost luggage would result in an interesting olfactory experience for porters.
Back in my comfortable air-conditioned suite on the 15th floor of Traders Hotel, I gaze at the view across the elegant skyscrapers, interspersed with verdant gardens. Singapore is the ideal hub to experience a clean and fascinating Asian space and to experiment with the delights of exotic food.